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NMSU Extension wildland fire specialist gives tips for protecting homes

Spring winds, low humidity and drought conditions add up to prime wildland fire conditions. It is that time of year again in New Mexico, where recent history reminds us that thousands of wildland acres will burn over the next few months. However, the certainty of forest and rangeland burning does not have to carry over to our homes and buildings.

House with fire burning front porch steps.
Embers from wildland fires can travel up to one mile ahead of a fire, resulting in numerous ignitions of homes and buildings. New Mexico State University Extension wildland and fire specialist Doug Cram encourages people to prepare their property to prevent unnecessary home losses to fire. (Submitted photo)

New Mexico State University?s Extension wildland and fire specialist Doug Cram said many of the losses of homes and buildings in those fires were preventable.

?Over the last 25 years, when researchers looked at how and why homes were lost during wildfire events, they were able to identify commonalities leading to ignition and propagation,? Cram said.

?One of the most interesting findings was that many homes burned, not as a result of towering flames and radiant heat from the head fire, but rather from embers landing on flammable material. Embers can travel up to one mile ahead of the fire, resulting in numerous ignitions. Once ignition has occurred, if there is additional flammable fuel available for combustion, the fire will grow.?

Research conducted by Cram at NMSU, along with results from other national research projects, has proven that wildland fire behavior and severity can be modified by reducing surface and canopy fuel loads.

?It stands to reason that if fire behavior can be changed in the ?back forty? through fuel reduction and restoration treatments, then it can also be changed in a residential backyard,? Cram said. ?So there are actions that can be taken to prevent property loss to fire.?

Roofing has been identified as the first priority area to address because of the high potential for ignition from embers when roofing material has lost its fire rating or because of the accumulation of pine needles or other dead vegetation.

Beyond the roof, there are a handful of specific areas that need to be inspected and potentially fortified, such as siding material, decks and vent openings, which can allow embers inside the attic and result in undetected ignition. Additional checkpoints include location of wood piles, propane tanks and vegetation within five feet of structures.

?Fortunately, simple maintenance can alleviate most of these problem areas,? Cram said.

Once the home has been strategically adapted to resist embers, the landscaping and fuel in the yard must be modified to prevent fire and flames from being able to move across the property and come into contact with the house.

?The common sense approach to meet this objective is to break the yard up into fuel reduction zones starting closest to the house and then working out,? Cram said. ?The zones are divided into within 30 feet of the house, and 30-100 feet away from the structure.?

The area closer to the house or structure should be clearer of all dead and dying vegetation and leaf litter.

?Debris should be removed from roof and gutters. Also vegetation near windows and under decks should be removed,? Cram said. ?Trim tree canopies to keep branches at least 10 feet from structures and other trees. Remove ?ladder fuels? to create a separation between low-level vegetation and tree branches. And move wood piles away from the house.?

Recently, homeowner fire preparedness has extended beyond private property to the neighborhood and community. Similar to the home and yard approach, information has been published on websites on how to effectively organize neighborhoods and communities to be prepared for wildfire.

?Once a pro-active approach and scaling up preparedness has been done from the home to the yard, to the neighborhood, to the community, it is logical to ask if the area beyond the community is prepared,? Cram said.

Communities are concerned about this area known as the ?back forty,? because they rely on it for drinking water, forage, timber, aesthetics, and recreational/economic opportunities.

?Consider taking the opportunity this spring to prepare your home and yard, and beyond for the better, or wildfire might take it for the worse,? Cram said.

Recently, Rio Arriba County conducted three NMSU Cooperative Extension Service programs within the county designed to provide residents information regarding how to prepare their house and yard for a wildfire situation.

Wildland fire preparedness is applicable across the state, not just in forested domains. Call Cram at 575-646-8130 to arrange a similar opportunity for your county or community.